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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sweet Corn Spoonbread and Tomatillo Salsa

Today was a lovely day. I don't know if it could have been much better. I slept well last night. I had a luxurious afternoon nap. I met with an old friend for lunch and had a fantastic turkey sandwich over discussion of life lessons and reminiscing. We went window shopping. Kiddo played outside with his friends and came home with a soaked shirt and chugged a glass of ice water. Brainfreeze. It was one of those perfect summer days.

So what makes the perfect summer day even more perfect? How about a spicy, flavorful dinner made with locally grown vegetables and fresh herbs, paired with a side of something soft and sweet? Oh yeaaah. That'll do it.

I had three tomatillos sitting in my produce basket for a week now, feeling lonely and unloved. Truth is, I just had them wrapped up really well and forgot about them, which is a shame because they're SO wonderful. They may not look like much from the outside. If you've never worked with them, chances are good you probably pass them in the grocery store and never even pay them a passing glance.

That just won't do.

Buy one. Or six. And make salsa. They're fab.

The size of the tomatillo you use is up to you. The small ones, about the size of a ping pong ball, are sweet. The larger, more plum-sized ones, are more tangy and have more acidity. On the outside, tomatillos look a little like papery, dry bulbs. (Did you know they're actually a member of the Nightshade family? Unlike its cousins, Belladonna and Jimsonweed, a tomatillo won't kill you. Don't mention the family reputation to the tomatillo, though. okay? It's a really awkward situation at reunions.)

When you peel away that husk, they reveal a firm, glossy, slightly sticky green flesh. Beautiful. You'll want to wash that stickiness off with warm water. It comes off easily. So first we wash, then slice. Then roast. Get all that delicious flavor out.

Then chop the rest of the yums. Stick 'em in the food processor and pulse. Now, to be fair, this isn't a fancy "artisan" salsa or anything like that. The flavors are basic and traditional, but really are pretty exceptional.

And there you have it! Fresh salsa in less than 10 minutes. And I gar-un-TEE it will be better than anything you can find in a jar. You can pulse it roughly for a chunky salsa, or puree it down for a thinner, more relish-like salsa, as I have done. I preferred mine thinner for this recipe. If I were making it for dipping, I'd keep it much more rough. You can also add anything you like in there--shallots, bell pepper, corn, olives, cilantro, you name it. It's all yours. Co crazy with it.

Salsa may not be the prettiest thing in the world, but boy howdy, is it ever delicious.

So, what about that spoonbread? This stuff is magic. You've no doubt run into this little treat at any tex-mex restaurant you might have visited. It's like the comfort-food feel of cornbread meets the sweet dessertishness (it's a word) of cake, meets the soft custardy texture of corn pudding. Because there are no eggs, it doesn't hold together like cake. You can't quite slice it, you sort of have to scoop it out of the pan.

I made mine in an 8x8 pan. But when I make this again (and you bet your butt I will), I'll bake it into individual ramekins or muffin tins. It'll be easier to serve that way.

So basically, this dish starts with butter. And sugar. Come on, all that fresh healthiness up there in our salsa needs a little balance. This obviously isn't an every-day side dish, but for a special occasion, it's definitely the bee's knees.

Oh, and you know what's awesome about living in the midwest during the summer? It's not the soul-sucking heat and humidity. It's not the numerous broken bridges and constant interstate construction. It's not even our amazing lack of post-card scenery. Nope. The best thing about the midwest is all our fresh corn. Acres and acres of rolling green cornfields, swaying in the breeze and waving their golden tassles. And there's not a whole lot that tastes better than fresh, sweet corn grown from the earth not even 10 miles from your home. While you can definitely replace the fresh corn with canned, these fresh badboys beat the pants off anything in a can.

So let's do this thing.

We're going to shuck the fresh corn and boil it until tender. While that's happening, our masa harina will be chillaxing in diluted yogurt, waiting to join up with whipped butter in a tasty little fiesta. Mmm, creamy. It makes one heck of a base for a yummy cake-like dish, yeah? And then fresh corn? And sugar? Oh my. Don't mind if I doooo.

This thing DOES take an hour to bake.

I know.

In the summer? That soul sucking heat we were talking about? Yeah. But it's worth it, I promise.

So...yeah. Shuck. Whip. Stir. Waterbath. Bake. That's about it.

It comes out looking like this. Fluffy and soft and lightly golden. I used an ice cream scoop to dish out the servings.

Now, I made my Black & Blue Tacos for dinner, and used the tomatillo salsa on those, but I gotta admit, I got a little greedy and slathered it on the spoonbread as well. I wasn't sure how the tangy/spicy flavor would mingle with the sweetness of the cake, but wowza. I think we may have the next peanut butter and jelly here, friends. What a pairing.

My only problem now is that I want more.

Tomatillo Salsa
Makes about 1.5 cups

3 medium tomatillos, washed, hulled and sliced
1/4 large red tomato, chopped
1/2 small yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 medium serrano pepper, diced (use more if you like it spicier)
Juice and zest of one lime
1/4 tsp salt

Remove the hulls with the tip of a paring knife, and slice the tomatillos into 3-4 thick slices. Brush the slices with a little olive oil and roast in the oven on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees until translucent and slightly browned around the edges, about 10-15 minutes.

While they're roasting, empty your chopped onion, tomato, serrano pepper, and parsley into a food processor. I used a little 2-cup processor. When the tomatillos are finished, add them as well. Pulse 3-4 times. Add your salt, lime juice, and zest. Pulse to blend. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish.

Sweet Corn Spoonbread
Makes 4-6 servings, depending on how much you wanna share

1/3 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup masa harina
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups fresh shucked sweet corn (about 2 medium ears)
(You can also sub 1 can whole or creamed corn)
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons sour cream or greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If you've made the salsa beforehand, your oven should already be there from roasting the tomatillos.

Remove the ears of corn from their husks, and remove all the silk. Using a sharp knife, cut off the kernels into a small saucepan. Add just enough water to cover, and boil on medium-high heat until kernels are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

While your corn is boiling, combine your masa harina with the water and sour cream (or yogurt). Stir well and let it soak it all up for about 5 minutes until you can fluff it with a fork, like stuffing. In a larger bowl, whip up your butter, spices, and sugar until creamy and thick.

Add the soaked masa harina, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and drained corn. Stir well and spread into ungreased 8x8 pan, muffin tins, or ramekins. Put your pan into a 9x13 water bath (a 9x13 pan filled halfway with water). This is because the spoonbread is delicate and has to bake quite a while. You don't have to do a waterbath, but I really do recommend it to keep it from getting too firm and drying out.

Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Serve warm. Enjoy the ooh's and aah's, and then that wonderful silence as everyone digs in.

Enjoy, and happy eating!


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